Wednesday, December 07, 2005
PICASSO IN ISTANBUL, CEMERSKI IN SKOPJE
Roughly about six years ago efendi Sakip Sabanci, one of the richest Turks in history, practically evicted himself out of his own home, a mansion with an majestic view over Istanbul and the Bosphorus. People came to watch and then talked over tea about what they have seen: the steady removal of Sabanci’s furniture and crystal, huge Chineese porcelain vases and centuries old large carpets rolled and wrapped to resemble the barel of a Fat Berta cannon. Most of the valuables were being sent off to safekeeping. When finally all the premises were empty, people told me that Mr Sabanci (died last year at 71) walked around, his footsteps echoing, and then, leaving with just a sigh the house of his childhood, ordered the real work to begin. The family home of the Sabanci was being remodeled into a museum. After two full intensive years of expert work, Sakip Sabanci Museum of Art opened in March 2002 displaying some 380 stunning pieces of Ottoman calligraphy and Turkish modern paintings. Sabanci donated the collection, the mansion and about $35 million dollars (for post-humous upkeep)as an endowment to an Istanbul University.
Last week in a newly built gallery next to those premises atop a hill overlooking the glorious city, opened the "Picasso in Istanbul" a very prestigious and probably ."the most politically loaded art exhibition anywhere in the world". It will run for four months, till March 25, ample time for the new generation of Sanacis to drum up maximum national and, evidently, international attention to the event. And to the determination behind it. Eventually, these four month may qualify to become a tourning point in Turkish cultural history. In my view all this prods for a visit to Istanbul and of course, the Sabanci complex: the Museum of Art and the Gallery.
The first time we went to Istanbul to prepare my first midget-sized book on Turkey, Sabanci had just taken over the family textile business from his father. I was freshly back from London (where earlier this year the Royal Academy lavishly presented The Turks, an extraordinary exhibition of absolute rarities, first time ever seen in the West) and Turkey did not impress me. With latter visits things changed. My lenses of the beholder widened or my perception skills improved. I begun falling in love with the country, its people, arts and history. Six months ago I was impressed with Tayup Erdogan's composed tone at the opening in London and wandered how will he prove that he means what he says. The Turks exhibition (it excited many reviewers enthusiastic, some went out of themselves in praising the art while at the same time bitterly attacking the political calculus allegedly behind it) wrapped up months ago, the accession negotiations with the EU have begun and one wondered whether that was it. Now we know it was not.
These Picasso nudes introduced to the Turkish public by the whores of Avignon in the presence of tout l'Istanbul speak volumes about the profound secularization of the Turkish society. Subtlety and ambiguity of expression thrives here as an old local art. Of what I know Turkish attitudes Picasso's will fare comfortably well here. None of his art carries an easy to recognize wanton sexuality and the nudity will not be offensive. "Jeunne filles au bord de la Seine" may be taken as an arabesque. Even the explicitly drawn genitals (as in his "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (apres Manet)", the lonely "Nude Boy" or the white "Nude in Red Armchair") appear, for this age of explicit pornography, driving the mind into venues of thought where only few, if any, of the most radical religious leaders will be comfortable to face opposition by the young, educated and the secular compatriots. On the other hand the Sabanci clan can (for domestic use) underline that this was a life obsession and a death wish of a great benefactor. The imams would have to bear that in mind too. The Turks love encrypting their messages and even direct threats will be cotton-and-silk wrapped, practically beyond recognition for the untrained ear or reasoning. There may be oblique references towards over-exploitation of a theme. Since Turks are very handy with clay and weaving, the public should not have any problem with that media - visibly present in the selection of the lead curator Marilyn McCully.
Presenting a representative selection of Picasso's oevre anywhere, even in the most recently build galleries and museums is a significant achievement. The sheer architecture of the building housing the Sabanci Museum would have been a disheartening problem to display 135 world-known canvasses. The former 22 rooms of the Italian styled mansion atop the elevation with an exclusive view was built for family pleasure and entertainment. (You may wish to have a look into the video presenting the museum by clicking here). It would have been very difficult to find an adequate place to hang any of the large canvasses here. But then, Sabanci had a dream to present Picasso in istanbul and he built a state-of-the-art gallery next to the mansion. There the large woolen tapestry (rarely seen) of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" looks great. That tapestry is not much (Picasso commissioned it in 1958 for his house in Cannes) but is better than nothing: the original painting (1907, restored a year ago) of the whores, the pivotal work for all of the modern art, never leaves either New York or MoMA. The tapestry is kind of Wikipedia entry about the "Demoiselles". Their original has now an altogether new appearance since layer after layer of surface dirt was removed and the discoloration of wax and varnish used in earlier repairs corrected. For the new "Demoiselles" one must fly to New York.
I doubt that this exhibition will entice many to do just that: make a pilgrimage to MoMA. It is hardly probable that the show (abundantly supported with all sorts of books, audio and video, guides, seminars, lectures, CD-R and you name it) will change anything related to Picasso. But this may affect the general attitude toward abstract and figurative art. This is the home ground of the severest iconoclastic pogroms. Christians (first) and (much latter) Muslims alike had their ample share of bans on painting human faces. There would have been rivers of blood if the apostles (not to speak of the Virgin) were shown naked. Would be pretty hard now too. Thus: this is a great step forward in every sense.
Guler Sabanci, nice to the founder and chair of the board of trustees, effervesces how "culture brings people together, avoids prejudices, breaks down borders" how it celebrates freedom of expression and goes on and on. Her point is done, she needs not knocking on heaven's doors: this exhibition made the big, heavy door of the international museum circuit wide open for Sabanci. If that private newcomer could pull it off one would expect that the Topkapi or the Anatolian Civilizations Museum, winner of Museum of the Year award, could easily stage similar exhibitions. Not so. Adequate space is needed and I would bet that we shall soon hear about a start of new gallery or modern arts museum. It will be very interesting to see what the French will say about this event they so willingly a unreservedly supported.
Sabanci used to overdo it when he told that his dad was a poor man. When my son Igor (who starts his term as Consul General of Republic of Macedonia in Istanbul this December 26-th) started school and I was a poor newsman in Skopje, Sakip Sabanci had Turgout Ozal as his first deputy in the firm. Latter, Ozal left Sabanci and embarked on a political carreer to become first the prime minister and then the president of Turkey. Ozal always had an ear for business but he was extra attentive towards his former employer. Now they are both gone but they have done a hell of lot for their country. I wish I did a fraction of what they did.
Sabanci was probably one of the first three businessmen who succedded in turning around a textile sweatshop it into a conglomerate with $12 billion in sales, that is about 5% of the GDP of Turkey, and 32,000 employees. The firm is now much more in food, plastics and cement and whatever than in textiles. He bought enterprises in 11 countries. Sabanci owns Japanese Toyota and the French Danone. Quite a change, strikingly visible from the 39-th floor of his business headqarters 39-story building.
Once Matthew Swibbel published an extensiove article about Sabanci in Forbes magazine. Now, for my taste, Forbes is one of those publications one cannot trust much because their collecting department seems to have a subtle and delayed policy related to compensation of the space dedicated to profiles of people, enterprises or countries. A laudatory article sooner or later eventually, so it appears to my eye, is supported with a payed advertisment. So, this guy wrote how Sabanci actually got motivated to collect art. He, allegedly, did not either understand nor love art but decided to mimick the filthy rich of the west. Sabanci did not begin buying early Ottoman manuscripts and calligraphy to show off or compete with the Matisses or the Picassos of the American tycoons. He chose to collect calligraphy.
The Forbes-type of wealthy people do not know much of Islamic art even less of the rich Ottoman collections. Atop Topkapi the sultans had their long laws or decrees, better known as hatiserifs and fermans, written by artists on parcments of scrolls, topped by the personal seal, tugra, of the kaliph. Calligraphy, in a way, is practically the foremost form of artist expression in the islamic world. But calligraphy is not painting. Then, it is illegible for those who do not know Arabic and although very pleasing to the eye, they are not the most sought after items for art collectors. When we stayed in Istanbul, somewhere 1967, we could purchase a piece for as low as $300. I lacked the courage to hang a framed calligraphy on the wall of my flat in Skopje. Nowadays it costs about 15 times as much, which is not even half the price of a Cemerski small painting.
Sabanci spent some $14 million building his collection. An illuminated 1541 Koran (that is the period of Suleiman the Magnificent) is probably the most valuable piece (it may cost about $500,000) and around it Sabanci built a reasonable collection. Till now the Sabanci's collection was presented in the Louvre, Berlin, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Harvard University. Sotheby's and Christie's catalogs feature Ottoman calligraphy on paper with prices from from $3,000 to $333,000. Other rich people in Turkey mimick Sabanci and collect calligraphy.
Now, I expect, Turkish millionaires will begin bidding for works by modern artists. If new, carefully chosen themes or artists for large-scale exhibitions follow, then one may be assured that Istanbul will have asserted itself as an important missing link. If Ankara, Izmir and Bursa host within 3-4 years time less provocative but equally well thought of art-shows, then we will have finally understood how badly wrong we all were about Turkey. I say this fully aware of all the worn out slogans which are here deliberately omitted.